FUXIN (Interfax-China) -- At what used to be Asia's largest coal stripmine in the city of Fuxin on the frontier between China's Liaoning and Inner Mongolia regions, residents are hoping the winds of economic change will finally switch direction after years of crippling unemployment, and worse, chronic subsidence caused by overmining.
From the wilderness of murk and smog that envelops the mine during the frigid winter months, some of the plans that have been conceived for the area, including the construction of theme parks, hotel complexes and cafe streets, appear to be very ambitious.
Most of the old industrial buildings that supported the mine now lay unused, their machinery defunct and their windows smashed. But amid the whirr of antique lathes and the barking of guard dogs ripping at their chains, officials told Interfax that within a few years, the site would be transformed into a global heritage zone.
"We are now going through the procedures to apply to UNESCO to list the Haizhou Open-Cast Coalmine as a world industrial heritage site," said Chen Qi of the Fuxin Tourist Bureau.
Several hundred miles away in the salubrious port city of Dalian, her counterpart, Liu Zhenwan, has a considerably easier time of it, with the self-styled "city of romance" drawing in thousands of sightseers from Japan, Korea and Russia. Nestled on the edge of the Bohai Bay, with its hospitable climate and cosmopolitan charm, Dalian has all the advantages.
"The whole city of Dalian is itself a scenic spot," said Wang Shuyan, the director of the Dalian Travel Bureau's Tourist Promotion and International Liaison Department.
For Fuxin, however, the situation is somewhat different. Like many other cities in the "old industrial base" of the northeast, it was actually created in order to serve the exploration and development of local coal reserves, and as much as 60% of its workforce were employed in the mine industry, said Song Qixuan, an official at the local government bureau responsible for the city's subsidence problems.
"We were a major energy city focusing mainly on coal," said Lai Huaping, the director of the Fuxin Tourist Bureau. "For more than ten years we have had to consider how we can transform the economy, and the direction that the transformation takes."
Industry is very close to hand in Fuxin. Fifty-year-old Soviet-built power plants still spew smoke right into the center of the city. The stench of sulfur pervades the city like the permanent striking of matches, and old coal trains creak between the tenements.
Meanwhile, about 101 square kilometers of land in the city is sinking as a consequence of five decades of unsustainable coal mining. Around 27,000 buildings have suffered various degrees of damage, housing around 78,000 people.
Close to the south face of the Haizhou mine alone, around 7,000 local residents faced the risk of landslides. The immediate threat of collapse has been somewhat abated, and the area is in the first stage of recovery.
"In order to solve these threats, the Ministry of Land and Resources allocated a huge fund to handle the disaster and recover the ecology of the area," Lai said.
Dai Xuefeng, of the China Academy of Social Sciences, who is involved in the Haizhou project, insists that the recovery efforts so far are as good as any in Europe, and may even be better.
Nevertheless, the local government believes that the "untouched" quality of Fuxin's industrial legacy will provide a unique opportunity for travelers to look into their past. Lai Huaping cited similar transformations in industrial centers like Manchester, England or Germany's Ruhr Valley, as well as efforts currently being made to create "industrial tourist bases" in Sichuan Province's Panzhihua, a major steel producer, and in Gansu Province's Baiying, a depleted copper mining area.
The Russian-designed Haizhou mine, owned by the local government, was opened in 1953, supplying half of the city's coal and employing 30,000 local people during its peak years. Many of the workers have already been relocated to mines in Inner Mongolia, and by now, after the mine was declared bankrupt last year and with the vast majority of its reserves already gone, a reduced workforce of 2,300 trudge through the mine, tending to its ancient steam trains, decaying warehouses and decommissioned machinery.
Many of them are expected to stay on even after the mine's resources are completely exhausted in about two or three years time. Lai Huaping says that they could serve as tour guides and assistants at the new tourist zone.
Five antique steam engines - still in working order - have already attracted the attention of train-spotters from the UK. Another train, immobile on the tracks, has already been converted into a small restaurant.
Meanwhile, Lai Huaping insisted on the preservation of the old Cultural Revolution slogan that dominates the crumbling premises of the mine's repair shop, saying that it would also be of interest to historically-inclined sightseers.
On the mine's far slopes, the government is considering an audacious plan to convert the barren wasteland into the world's biggest golf course. Trucks are already moving soil to the area from adjacent hills, and fragile saplings sprout from the grey-brown earth, a testament to the recovery efforts.
Lai Huaping remains optimistic about the prospects for growth in a city that even government officials describe as a "disaster zone," and he is proud of the unique story that the Haizhou mine - launched by Japanese occupiers and designed in its present form by Soviet experts - can tell to future generations.
"We have 150 years of industrial equipment from every technological age," he said. "From laborers mining by hand to automation, mechanization, electrification, digitalization. We have everything."
The Haizhou mine also contains vintage equipment imported from Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, he said.
Fuxin's beleaguered coal industry continues to operate. On December 7, a flood at the city's Ping'an Mine left eight workers dead. In June, 32 perished in a gas explosion at the Wulong mine.
Still, even the calamities that have struck Fuxin's coal industry in recent years can be used to its advantage, Lai said, describing a coal theme park in which visitors can experience some of the emotions of a coalmine disaster first-hand.
"We can simulate a coalmine disaster," he said. "For example, a tourist can go down to the very bottom of the mine, and as [the experience] comes to an end, we can completely cover him with black ping-pong balls. Premier Wen Jiabao said that we definitely should do this, so we can better appreciate the life of our miner brothers."
The city's problems have been evident for years, but with the local economy completely dependent on the further exploitation of coal, those problems were left to linger. "A local expert raised the question of what the city would become after running out of its coal resources back in the 1980s," said Dai Xuefeng, "but was then severely criticized by the government."
Fuxin gained national attention almost four years ago, when Wen Jiabao, then the vice-premier, spent the Lunar New Year with local miners and urged government officials to deal effectively with the city's subsidence problems. The city's suffering was also one of the factors in the decision to launch the "Rejuvenate the Northeast" campaign later that year.
Since then, the state government has invested significant amounts of capital to stave off catastrophe and relocate those residents under immediate risk. The State Council approved the issue of RMB 765 million ($98 million) in state bonds in order to build new apartment complexes, schools and hospitals for the evacuees.
The total investment required to recover the Haizhou mine will stand at RMB 600 million ($77 million), said Dai of the China Academy of Social Sciences. RMB 300 million ($38.5 million) has already been invested.
State media reports put the unemployment rate in the city at about 156,000, 20% of the total population. Lai Huaping said that the development of tourism could provide jobs for at least a fifth.
The local government has other plans. A high-speed road network will soon be in place to help improve local fortunes. Meanwhile, Fuxin hopes to take advantage of its ethnic minority culture. About 23% of its population is Mongolian, and the city plans to construct a Mongolian cultural center.
Lai Huaping also notes the city's plans to stage performances reflecting Fuxin's industrial and ethnic legacies, similar to Butterfly Dreams in Yunnan's Dali and Impression of Liu Sanjie in Yangshuo, Guangxi.
Fuxin's problems are not unique. In Liaoning alone, the similarly resource-dependent cities of Anshan, Fushun, Benxi, Panjin and Dashiqiao have all faced the problems of land subsidence and the resettlement of local residents in recent years. According to statistics from the China Mining Union, almost 70% of China's 390 resource-dependent cities are in the "mature production stage," and another 12% have already begun to deplete. All are facing intolerable levels of unemployment.
The local government in Fuxin is trying to address its own particular problems creatively. The city's calamitous recent history might not yet be over, and overcoming the difficulties might require more than good intentions, but it seems - at least - that the age of coal dependence is slowly coming to an end.
(c) InterFax-China 2006. For more intelligence on Chinese metals and mining, click here or call Alison Crawford in London on +44 (0) 20 7256 3919.